Children with disabilities can qualify for disability benefits from the Social Security Administration (SSA) through the Supplemental Security Income (SSI) program. When awarding SSI benefits to children because of a disability, Social Security accounts for the fact that diseases and impairments can have very different effects on children and adults. So, although your child's disability application process will be similar to the process for an adult, the criteria needed to win a child's claim are a bit different.
SSI is designed to offer financial help to individuals with very low incomes. As such, children must meet the SSI income and resource limits to qualify for this benefit.
When determining financial eligibility, Social Security will consider both the income and resources of the child and those of the family members the child lives with. For example, if your disabled child lives at home with you, your child won't be able to collect SSI if you (and your spouse) make above a certain amount of money.
Even if your minor child doesn't live at home most of the time (like if the child spends most of their time away at school), Social Security might still consider your income and resources if your child:
Not all of a family's income is counted; Social Security will only "deem" a portion of the household income as belonging to the child. (Learn more about family income deeming for a child applying for SSI.)
Once the income requirements are met, your child must meet the medical eligibility requirements of SSI to be considered for benefits. To qualify, all of the following must be true:
Social Security then makes a decision on whether or not the child's functional limitations are severe enough to move forward into a full disability determination. For example, let's suppose you apply for disability benefits for your child who has a learning disability, but your child performs at or near grade level. Social Security might not consider your child's learning disability a severe limitation and could deny your child benefits early on in the decision-making process.
Social Security's full disability determination of your child will involve a two-step process. Social Security must:
Social Security's listing of impairments (called the Blue Book) covers conditions the SSA considers severe enough to be automatically disabling. If your child meets the requirements of a listing, Social Security will automatically qualify your child as disabled.
Part A of the Blue Book was created for adults and covers conditions that affect adults. Part B of the Blue Book has separate disability listings for children. Often the criteria are the same as in the adult listings, but sometimes the criteria are easier to meet than in the adult listings.
Common listings for physical conditions. Some of the physical disabilities in the listings that affect children the most include:
For more information, see our list of children's physical disabilities.
Common listings for mental disabilities. The listings include emotional and cognitive impairments affecting both adults and children. Some of the most common conditions for children include:
Learn more by going to our list of children's mental, developmental, and cognitive conditions.
If your child's medical condition doesn't meet the requirements of a disability listing, your child might still be deemed disabled if Social Security finds the child's functional limitations "marked and severe." The limitations must severely affect your child's ability to function on a daily basis.
Specifically, your child must have an extreme limitation in one area of functioning or serious limitations in two areas of functioning. The areas of functioning (called domains) that Social Security looks at include learning, finishing tasks, interacting socially, and getting around and moving objects.
Examples of children with extreme functional limitations include:
Examples of serious functional limitations (depending on the child's age) might include:
Learn more about how children's conditions can functionally equal the listings.
You'll need a good deal of evidence to prove that your child meets or equals a disability listing or has functional limitations that are marked and severe. Depending on the impairment, medical evidence requirements can range from doctor's observations to lab tests.
Your child's medical reports should compare the child's functional abilities to other children of the same age who don't have impairments. Functions that should be compared include your child's ability to:
Social Security will also consider school records and reports in determining your child's level of impairment.
If more medical information is needed, Social Security might ask that your child have a medical examination or additional tests done. The SSA will cover the costs of these "consultative exams" (CEs). If your child is selected for a CE, Social Security will send your child to a medical doctor (MD) to perform a physical exam, and for mental exams, the agency will send your child to a psychologist or psychiatrist (depending on the impairment).
(For more information, see our section on consultative medical exams.)
No one wants to wait for Social Security to decide if their child is disabled enough to qualify for SSI benefits. The financial strain on your family can be enormous. But generally, it takes four to five months for Social Security to make a determination in a child's SSI claim.
However, there are some conditions that qualify for immediate benefits. If your child has one of these conditions, disability payments can start immediately and last up to six months while your child's case is being decided. Social Security calls this "presumptive disability." Some of the conditions that qualify include:
For more information, see our article on presumptive disability.
Social Security disability insurance (SSDI) benefits are for disabled adults who've worked a certain length of time in jobs where they paid Social Security (FICA) taxes. A child, even if 17 or 18 years old, won't have worked long enough to be insured under SSDI.
However, if a child's parent is disabled and collects SSDI benefits, the child might be able to receive dependents' benefits. And after turning 18, a disabled teen could continue to receive SSDI benefits as a "disabled adult child" based on the disabled parent's earnings.
Once Social Security determines that your child is disabled and begins paying disability benefits, your child might be subject to periodic reviews. If your child's condition is expected to improve, these ongoing reviews will usually happen at least once every three years. Even for children whose conditions aren't expected to improve, disability reviews will still take place, although less frequently.
During the review, Social Security will look at your child's current medical condition to see if it's improving and will look for evidence that your child is getting the necessary medical care for their condition. As long as Social Security continues to consider your child disabled and believes the child is receiving the necessary medical care, your child will continue to get SSI benefits.
Read more about Social Security's continuing disability reviews.
Updated December 5, 2022